(Click to enlarge photo of Saradiya dancing for Srila Prabhupada, San Francisco, 1968)
His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada very kindly accepted me as his disciple in the beginning of January 1968, giving me the name Saradiya Devi Dasi, "servant of the goddess of autumn." This occurred at the Sri Sri Radha-Krishna temple on 518 Frederick Street, San Francisco, California.
Having grown up in San Francisco, I would sometimes explore different areas of the city. The Haight-Ashbury district was particularly intriguing in those days, and so it was about February 1967 that I saw a card on the sidewalk in that neighborhood that stopped me in my tracks. Picking it up, I read: "Chant this mantra and you will stay high forever: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
By immeasurable great fortune, the mantra attracted me and I began to chant it, although I didn’t realize that it was a collection of names for God. I could feel the uplifting effect so I would chant the mantra on many occasions while walking or riding the bus.
During that 1967 "Summer of Love," as I found myself jostled by the throngs of tourists on the main street running through Haight-Ashbury, I noticed an intriguing poster about a July parade festival of Lord Jagannatha. At the Psychedelic Bookstore I was drawn to the blue mimeographed magazine Back to Godhead, although the esoteric articles were beyond my understanding. In another shop, I bought a wood flute decorated with a picture of the face of a pretty blue boy.
That autumn, a copy of the Bhagavad-gita came into my possession. It had been published in India, and although I couldn’t fully comprehend the teachings, I was inspired to stop eating animal flesh. It seems by this simple sacrifice that I was getting ready to meet someone who was actually living the devotional life glorified by Sri Krishna in the Gita.
Not long after Thanksgiving Day, I was invited to the Sri Sri Radha-Krishna temple in San Francisco. As the door opened, I heard the melodious singing of those same words of the maha-mantra that I had so often chanted that year: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare!
The temple had rich red carpet and freshly painted white walls. Hanging on one wall was a painting of beautiful blue Krishna sitting on a rock and playing His flute. It was a feast for my eyes. The air was sweet with the aroma of incense and delicious prasada. Lord Jagannatha, Lady Subhadra, and Lord Balarama stood on the altar at one end of the temple room. I was very impressed by the tranquil atmosphere and sincere followers, who told me about their guru, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, whom they called, Swamiji.
After that visit, I went to the local record store and purchased Swamiji’s Happening album, and thus I was introduced to him through transcendental sound vibration. While gazing at his photograph on the back cover, I began to cry. Not fully realizing it, my connection with Swamiji began even before I met him in person.
A few weeks later, Swamiji (now Srila Prabhupada) returned from India and arrived at the San Francisco temple. His face and body was surrounded with a golden aura. Hearing him personally chant the Maha Mantra, The Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagwatam was nectar to my ears. Two weeks later, he kindly accepted me as his disciple. Although I was only sixteen, I had enough wherewithal to realize that my initiation was a significant turning point in my life and was to be taken seriously.
Throughout those early years, I was extremely blessed and fortunate to have had Srila Prabhupada’s association on the West and East coasts of the United States and in Canada, India and England. Srila Prabhupada took a special interest in each of his disciples, and lovingly encouraged us in various ways. I’d like to mention a few memorable incidents to highlight his compassion, concern, and direct involvement in the lives of his disciples, both female and male.
On numerous occasions Srila Prabhupada encouraged me in my attempts to follow this path. The main program at the San Francisco temple took place at 7 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The temple room was a renovated storefront; although it was not very large, it was sufficient for the number of devotees and guests who attended.
We would eagerly wait for Srila Prabhupada’s arrival from his nearby apartment. When he entered, one devotee would blow a conch shell (I enjoyed doing this) and everyone else would prostrate themselves. Devotees and guests would then sit facing Srila Prabhupada’s vyasasana, with the Jagannatha Deities to their left.
In those days, Srila Prabhupada began the evening programs with the Vande 'ham prayers, which he would follow with Hare Krishna kirtana. The kirtanas were ecstatic, and people would sit or stand, facing the Jagannatha Deities. We would dance slowly, moving our feet from side to side and raising our arms as Srila Prabhupada had taught us was the proper way to dance before the Deities.
On one occasion, Gurudasa recorded Srila Prabhupada and the kirtana with a video recorder. Srila Prabhupada indicated to Gurudasa that he video the two women devotees dancing in the kirtana who were dressed in new saris – this was Ali Krishna Devi Dasi and myself. Ali Krishna and I were friends from high school and I had introduced her to the chanting and the temple. She and I were initiated on the same day.
A few blocks from the temple, Srila Prabhupada lived in an apartment with a couple of brahmachari assistants. He held darshans there on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On one such evening, as a dozen devotees sat in front of his low desk, Srila Prabhupada personally and instructively began to say our names with a lesson in mind: "Saradiya, nice tilaka; Krishna Dasa, no tilak" and so forth for every devotee in the room. We learned from this of the great importance of wearing tilaka on one’s body.
Srila Prabhupada usually took his daily walk at Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park, and we took turns going with him, usually in small groups of three or four. Devotees sometimes asked him questions, but we were satisfied just being in his presence for these special occasions. On one particularly cooler morning, I was wearing my long coat and a turquoise shawl. Like a concerned father, Srila Prabhupada asked if I was sufficiently covered.
Occasionally, the brahmacharis relayed messages to me from Srila Prabhupada. He told me I should finish high school and that I shouldn’t have boyfriends. Since I was still attending high school, this protective directive helped me to focus on my high school education along with my spiritual practices.
These examples illustrate how Srila Prabhupada was concerned for our welfare, both spiritually and materially. There was no indication that he preferred either his female or male disciples. As our spiritual master, he encouraged us in following his instructions; as our spiritual father or grandfather, he looked after us in his caring, personal, and compassionate manner.
Later that year, Srila Prabhupada came from Montreal and arrived back at the first temple he began in New York City at 26 Second Avenue. It was the auspicious occasion of Radhastami, Srimati Radharani’s Appearance Day. The devotees were eagerly awaiting his arrival and anxious to hear his transcendental message. After he settled onto his vyasasana, he graciously thanked the artist who had painted the beautiful Radha-Krishna painting that was hanging in Montreal. Then he said that all the women should learn to paint. In addition, he said "These women are all goddesses of fortune, and you should not think of them as objects for your sense gratification." Srila Prabhupada compared his female disciples to the goddesses of fortune in order to encourage them, but also to remind both men and women that they were not ordinary women. Because his female disciples were engaged in devotional service according to his direction, they were to be treated with dignity and respect. He also suggested an engagement that would please both him and themselves, as well as Radha and Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada had repeated on several occasions that he needed paintings to illustrate his books as well as for ISKCON temples worldwide, so I took up the service wholeheartedly. Wherever I traveled, I made it my service to paint a few paintings to beautify the temple, and so my paintings have found their way to the United States, Canada, Trinidad, South America, India, Germany, and England. I was also able to contribute a few paintings for Srila Prabhupada’s books and his Back To Godhead magazine.
Later that day in New York, the devotees went to a local park to hold kirtana and hear Srila Prabhupada talk about Srimati Radharani on Her Appearance Day. He said that the reason people are attracted to forests and parks is because Radha, Krishna, and the gopis are engaged in an eternal rasa dance in the forests of Vrindavan. Our natural longing for these places is from that original attraction on the part of the Lord. Srila Prabhupada pointed out that the highest pleasure for the eternal soul is to engage in pastimes with Lord Krishna and the gopis.
The next year, in May of 1969, I was fortunate to participate in the first Vedic wedding in Boston at the Radha Krishna Temple on Glenville Avenue. This special occasion was reported in the local papers. The three couples getting married were Jahnava Dasi and Nandakisore Dasa, Rukmini Devi and Baradraj Dasa, and me and Vaikunthanatha Dasa. Srila Prabhupada kindly performed the fire sacrifice and gave us his blessings. After the ceremony, while Srila Prabhupada was sitting on his vyasasana and taking prasada with all of us, he looked over at me and asked, "Saradiya, now you are happy?"
The next morning, Vaikunthanatha and I were honored to take a walk with Srila Prabhupada and his servant. Srila Prabhupada remarked to me, "You are no longer 'Miss Saradiya'; now you are 'Mrs. Saradiya.'" Srila Prabhupada kindly graced me with these encouraging words. From this particular instance I realized that since I had become "Mrs. Saradiya" didn’t mean I was losing myself or my individuality because I had gotten married. I was to remain myself, and I felt that he was reminding my husband of the same. He wanted his female disciples to get married, and the householder couples to then help him spread Krishna consciousness around the world.
Within a few years, I had the opportunity to help spread Krishna consciousness in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, near the coast of Venezuela. I traveled all over Trinidad for a year, going to outdoor markets, door to door, and various temples on the small island, meeting people from its mixture of ethnicities. For a few months I also went to Guyana. From the end of 1970 until the spring of 1972, Vaikunthanath and I pioneered the Krishna consciousness movement in that part of the world.
From Georgetown, Guyana, we wrote Srila Prabhupada a letter, asking him to give Vaikunthanatha brahmana initiation so we could worship Deities (I had been given Gayatri initiation previous to marriage). In his return letter, Srila Prabhupada said that any brahmana could perform the ceremony and give Vaikunthanatha Gayatri – Saradiya, or any Brahmana could do it. So I performed the sacred fire sacrifice before a few dozen guests and visitors. This service helped me feel very connected to Srila Prabhupada, and I realized that he was being extremely merciful to me. I was humbled that he had allowed me to carry out his direction. Although thousands of miles from him, I felt closer than ever before as I sensed he was pleased by my attempt to assist him with this preaching.
Srila Prabhupada confirmed my feelings in a letter he wrote me, saying that the grihastha ashram would be served by preaching this philosophy as he had taught us. Later that year, in the fall of 1972 in India, when I finally again saw Srila Prabhupada, he kindly mentioned me in his welcome talk to the small audience gathered at Srila Rupa Goswami’s samadhi.
During the Gaura-Purnima festival in Mayapur 1973, many of Srila Prabhupada’s godbrothers were in attendance. During the main program, Srila Prabhupada asked a couple of his female disciples to speak – particularly Kausalya and Malati. Then he turned to me and asked, "Saradiya, you would like to speak something?" I nodded and thought I would at least have a few minutes to think of what to say, since Kausalya and Malati were going to speak first.
When it was my turn to speak, I stood up and said that we are all like Jagai and Madhai and therefore we need to take advantage of the holy names. I must have said something humorous because the audience laughed, so I think my little talk went over all right.
A few months later, I moved to England. Srila Prabhupada continued to shower me with mercy and kind words as he encouraged me in my new role as mother of a newborn daughter, Brajarani. When he came to the Bhaktivedanta Manor in the spring of 1974, Brajarani was just over a month old. All the devotees gathered in his room for darshan. I sat with my daughter on my lap. When Srila Prabhupada looked in our direction he said, "That is a beautiful child." He acknowledged her as beautiful in her own right, and I felt that she belonged to Krishna while I was her fortunate caretaker for the time being.
On another occasion, near the end of 1974 in Los Angeles, Srila Prabhupada was walking with a group of devotees, touring the various departments of ISKCON Press. I was holding Brajarani and walking nearby. He gave us both a loving smile and asked, "Is your daughter walking yet?"
On the occasion of the ISKCON Berkeley temple opening, just before the 1975 San Francisco Ratha-yatra, Srila Prabhupada posed with a large group of devotees in front of the temple. His room was accessed from the outside, so afterward, he got down from his new vyasasana and walked past the devotees to head toward his room. I was sitting on the ground in the front row with my daughter in my lap when Srila Prabhupada stopped for a moment, looked down at us, and asked, "Is your daughter still sleeping?" He then continued toward his quarters.
So this, and many other such personal encouragements have endeared Srila Prabhupada to me eternally. I am forever indebted to his lotus feet and I pray that someday I can repay what he has given me. No doubt this will take many lifetimes. I hope to assist him in spreading Krishna consciousness throughout the universe, as he desires.